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Sex, Cinema, and Politics: The Films of Bernardo Bertolucci

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This 15-film retrospective of work by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci runs Friday, August 13, through Saturday, August 28, at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton, 773-281-4114. Tickets are $9, $5 for Facets members. Following are the films scheduled for August 13 through 19; a full series schedule is available online at www.chicagoreader.com. Films marked with an asterisk (*) are highly recommended.

* Before the Revolution

Bertolucci was 22 when he burst upon the film scene with this 1964 feature, his second. The contrary attractions of sensuality and politics have been the subject of many of Bertolucci's films, but the conflict is presented most passionately and personally here, through the figure of a young bourgeois revolutionary (Francesco Barilli) involved in a tortured relationship with his aunt (Adriana Asti). The visual style suggests Minnelli in its lush subjectivity, particularly when the black and white gives way to color for a brief lyrical sequence. With Morando Morandini and Allen Midgette. In Italian with subtitles. 115 min. (DK) (Saturday, August 14, 4:45 and 9:00, and Sunday, August 15, 3:00)

The Dreamers

On the eve of the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris, a young American film freak (Michael Pitt) meets a vaguely incestuous French brother and sister (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) at the Cinematheque Francais and gets drawn into their perverse games, which involve sex as well as cinephilia. Less sexy, believable, literary, and transgressive than Gilbert Adair's 1988 source novel, The Holy Innocents, which he adapted for Bertolucci, this watchable if far-fetched movie (2003) is seriously marred by its three leads; only Garrel manages to suggest a person rather than a fashion model dutifully following instructions. And ironically, despite the nudity that provoked an NC-17 rating, the film suffers from its own censorship of the novel's homosexual elements. In English and subtitled French. 115 min. (JR) (Friday, August 13, 6:30 and 8:45)

The Grim Reaper

Bertolucci's feature debut (1962) opens with a tracking shot that leads to the lifeless body of a prostitute in a riverside park in Rome, and it continues with the theatrical interrogation of five down-at-the-heels suspects, each seated before a white backdrop and questioned from behind the camera. Their testimony (much of it proven false) introduces a series of personal vignettes aching with loneliness, a narrative structure that limits the characterization and never overcomes its debt to Rashomon. The result is stylish and occasionally haunting, but strangely the most compelling character turns out to be the victim, about whom nothing is revealed. Bertolucci's mentor, Pier Paolo Pasolini, wrote the story. In Italian with subtitles. 100 min. (JJ) (Saturday, August 14, 2:45 and 7:00)

* La Luna

Bertolucci's Jungian 1979 remake of High School Confidential!, with Matthew Barry as a strung-out teenager and Jill Clayburgh as his mother, who believes in unbounded maternal affection as a cure for his affliction. Clayburgh is an American opera singer living in Italy, a ploy that allows Bertolucci to explore a clash of cultures as well as an operatic clash of emotions. Loud, vulgar, and frequently obnoxious, the film nevertheless has a perfect integrity in its excesses. This is filmmaking from the groin, unabashed and unrestrained. In English and subtitled Italian. 144 min. (DK) (Tuesday, August 17, 6:30 and 9:00)

* Partner

Bertolucci's seldom shown third feature is very much a reflection of its moment--1968--but no less fascinating for that. Loosely based on Dostoyevsky's The Double, and starring the remarkable Pierre Clementi, who also plays his own doppelganger, the film was made at the height of Godard's influence on younger European directors, evident here in the loose narrative structure, focus on student radicalism, satire on consumerism (which also shows the influence of Frank Tashlin), and rampant cinephilia (F.W. Murnau being the most important and frequent citation). A bit all over the place, the film lacks the heartbreaking conviction of Before the Revolution, but it soars with manic runaway energy. In Italian with subtitles. 105 min. (JR) (Sunday, August 15, 5:30, and Monday, August 16, 7:00 and 9:00)

* The Spider's Stratagem

Bertolucci's pre-Conformist film about a plot to murder Mussolini during a performance of Rigoletto, based on a story by Borges. Originally shot for television, this 1970 feature recalls Visconti's Senso, with its sumptuous visuals and sense of high tragedy as a young man discovers that his father's antifascist heroism was worthless. With Giulio Brogi and Alida Valli. In Italian with subtitles. 100 min. (DD) (Wednesday, August 18, 7:00 and 9:00)

Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man

Bertolucci's 1981 film about a self-made cheese magnate (Ugo Tognazzi) in northern Italy whose son is apparently kidnapped by political terrorists. While his French wife (Anouk Aimee) tries to raise the money for the ransom, Tognazzi becomes friends with the two leftists (Laura Morante and Victor Cavallo) who have been sent to him as go-betweens. Perhaps the least known of Bertolucci's features, it is far from the least interesting. In Italian with subtitles. 116 min. (JR) (Thursday, August 19, 6:30 and 8:45)

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